Aug 7, 2009
Baitullah Mehsud is dead. Really dead. Blubber boy was taken out by a kid in Nevada with a joystick. Good stuff.
The Mehsud network has been weakened by a combination of Pakistani military operations, an aggressive propaganda campaign, and U.S. drone attacks. Its strategic space has been remarkably narrowed, despite newly restored alliances with neighboring militant groups, such as the Hafiz Gul Bahadur network. But the Mehsud group will survive this serious blow and it remains determined to prove its relevancy. Toward this, it will have to select a new leader. Hakimullah Mehsud is one of the probable candidates. While Hakimullah has the charisma and management skills of Baitullah, it’s unclear as to whether the operations in the Khyber-Orakzai area can continue with Hakimullah in South Waziristan, where he’ll have to be based if he wants to lead the TTP. Stepping into Baitullah’s shoes will be a tough task. He was a thug par excellence, taking out militants who were virtually identical to him ideologically, but also competitors over contested turf. Baitullah’s strength stemmed not only from his capacity to inflict damage on Pakistani security forces and civilians, but also from his ability to be the last man standing in intra-militant ‘death matches’. But he who lives by the gun, dies by the gun. And so Baitullah died by causes that were quite natural given his violent way of life.
In addition to choosing a new leader, the Baitullah network will likely try to pull off a forceful attack in the NWFP or deeper into Pakistan. The message would be, ‘This battle continues after Baitullah’. Baitullah’s network, the Tehreek-e Taliban Pakistan, needs to maintain a sense of coherency. And Baitullah offered that — quite brutally. It will be tough to maintain cohesion without a clear, proven leader. Baitullah achieved his status both steadily and through ‘fantastic’ attacks. He built an aura or myth around him that young, wayward boys and men in the Pashtun belt became enamored with.
The timing of Baitullah’s killing is key. His “jihad” in Pakistan has backfired considerably this year. At the same time, the Afghan Taliban’s counter-surge in Afghanistan is doing reasonably well. So is this a time for internal debate in the Pakistani Taliban camp, questioning the utility of investing energy in Pakistan? Will they seek a peace deal with Rawalpindi?
What about Washington? Given that it has scratched Rawalpindi’s back, what does it expect in return? Cooperation against the Jalaluddin-Sirajuddin Haqqani network and Mullah Omar’s Taliban? Is that something Rawalpindi is able and willing to offer, if it hasn’t already?
And now that Langley has taken out Mehsud, which Pakistanis allege was avoided on at least two occasions before (interestingly, US officials after almost two years of silence countered off the record in a Time magazine report that retired Pakistani security officers were aiding Mehsud), will the Pakistani public warm up to the drone attacks? After all, the United States has taken out Pakistan’s greatest tormentor in recent years — a man who is responsible for the murder of over 3,000 Pakistanis and, possibly, of its former prime minister, the late Benazir Bhutto.
My expectation is that any change in the Pakistani security establishment and public will be partial, but not a game changer. Mistrust between the U.S. and Pakistani security establishments seems to be higher than ever. And recently hardened militants could be softened up by a changed calculus. Hafiz Gul Bahadur, who has continued his suicide attacks against the Pakistan military, could be amenable to a ceasefire with Rawalpindi, which would be especially interested if he’s willing to redirect his resources westward. Alternatively, Rawalpindi could cooperate in weakening the Haqqani network and its North-South Waziristan partners, if it has estimated these entities are irreversibly hostile and — due to Baitullah’s death — vulnerable. But the probability of Rawalpindi going against Mullah Omar’s Taliban is close to nil. Without the latter, the Pakistani security establishment has almost no cards to play in Afghanistan. It will have lost in a great game that has only really started.